Book Review: Who Stole My Church? What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the Twenty-First Century

MacDonald, Gordon. Who Stole My Church? What to Do When the Church You Love in Tries to Enter the Twenty-first Century. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2007. 248 pp. [Paperback | Kindle]

As a seminary chancellor, former pastor, author, and magazine editor, Gordon MacDonald brings a vast wealth of knowledge and experience to a book that, while fictional, addresses the significant challenges churches and leaders face in addressing change in established churches. MacDonald serves as Chancellor of Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, where he also served as interim president from 2008-09. He is also Editor at Large of Leadership Journal and is Pastor Emeritus of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. MacDonald authored twelve books dealing with all areas of Christian life.

Synopsis

Who Stole My Church? comes from an actual conversation from a long-time member of a church who felt betrayed by the numerous changes taking place under the leadership of a new, young pastor. When this man told MacDonald, “Our church has been stolen out from under us”—this served as the genesis for this work. MacDonald brings this work from the perspective of the people affected by the change. Though fictional, this work brings many of the issues and patterns that arise when changes take place in an established church.

MacDonald provides his working definition of church as it relates to moving forward into the 21st century:

Here and there, however, are marvelous people who seem to understand that a church is not meant to be a club organized for the convenience of insiders but a cooperative where people combine together to grow spiritually, to worship the triune God, and to prepare themselves for Christian living and service in the larger world (viii).

Who Stole My Church? is set in a small New England town, an area of the country MacDonald knows well given his tenure as a pastor in Massachusetts, and centers around a series of meetings eventually named the Discovery Group. The pastor called this group to address tensions that arose in the recent past at this New England established church. These tensions came to a climax at a business meeting when the discussion for a name change to the church took place. The outcome of the vote was close but surprised the pastor and most others in attendance when the measure did not pass. When the Discovery Group convened, they each voiced their respective opinions and emotions regarding the changes taking place in the church as well as the culture. Each of the members loved their church and had served in their church for many years, each growing up with certain programs in place, certain styles of dress, preferred styles of music and preaching, the centrality of the church building as a place for ministry—among other matters.

As the book progresses and the Discovery Group discusses each of their concerns, the pastor systematically takes them through each of their concerns and through the rationale behind the changes in a way where they begin to understand his rationale. Some see the value of the vision and immediately came on-board, some struggled to adapt but they would follow if the church approved because they loved their church, and some refused to adapt and would thus leave the church. MacDonald seeks to help both pastors and laypeople understand the other to reach the culture in the 21st century.

Evaluation

For pastors of an established church, Who Stole My Church? will serve simultaneously as a helpful and challenging read; not due to the difficulty of understanding MacDonald’s writing, but on understanding his message all too clearly about the potential difficulties that arise in these types of churches. In my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, we have 47,544 cooperating churches. Approximately 85% of these churches are either plateaued or declining; and approximately 45% of these churches have a worship attendance of 200 or less. While the fluctuation or amount of attendance does not indicate health or decay, the truth is that established, non-plant churches make up much of our denomination and are in trouble, with approximately 900 closing every year.[1]

Structurally, MacDonald provides the reader with all the topics under examination in the first chapter as each member of the Discovery Group unloads their concerns and critiques—items all too familiar to pastors of established churches wishing to affect change. As painful as this could be for these pastors, they could benefit from realizing they are not alone in their pastoral plight. This book will serve young and seasoned pastors alike who come into ministry with a certain degree of naïveté. Even those who are disciples of Jesus can come with a particular set of challenges when change is suggested or executed. The reader (pastor or otherwise) will learn some valuable lessons.

First, the pastor must know his members. At the beginning of each chapter, the ‘pastor’ takes copious notes regarding a particular member of the Discovery Group. Clearly, he knows their personalities, their stories, their tendencies, and conveys an unconditional love for each member. This is the charm of the book. MacDonald, wittingly or unwittingly, conveys to his pastoral readers that pastors must know, stand among, serve with, and lead their sheep. They cannot lead their flock unless they know the flock whom they are leading.

Secondly, a pastor must communicate with his members, recognizing that communication is a two-way endeavor: talking and listening to them. Communication and misunderstandings present their own challenges in regards to church world. When a misunderstanding or disregard for what the pastor communicates takes place, the pastor’s temptation is to write off these members if they cannot follow his lead. MacDonald’s ‘pastor’ applies the principle found in the Epistle of James: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger: for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). MacDonald expertly provides examples from his own experiences of how to engage those who are struggling with change, and that is to listen! His willingness to gather together those who struggled with the implementation (or even the suggestion) of change demonstrates a key principle: a pastor’s vision should not mean more than his people.         

MacDonald takes on the contentious subject of church music, rightly calling this “arguably the most volatile issue in the church today” (89). The so-called worship wars pit genres and generations against each other. In the Discovery Group, the pastor navigated them through a brief history of church music, spending significant time on Isaac Watts (1674-1748), but also on numerous other developments that affected their musical tastes unbeknownst to them. When the pastor shares the story of how state of church music with the monotonous psalmody congregation sang in that day frustrated Watts, his father did not chastise him but rather encouraged him to find a solution. Surprisingly, many congregations refused to sing Watts’ hymns because they were not psalmody, but over time, his works took their rightful place as one of the most represented even in modern hymnals today. The example finds traction for every new style of music that comes into the church in every generation—that new style is embraced by some, resisted by others, and not always along stereotypical demographic lines. MacDonald wrote, “How does each generation open the door for the next generation to sing the gospel in its own fresh way” (113)? A poignant question indeed! How a church answers this question will speak volumes about its future!

Toward the end of this work, MacDonald takes the reader through the pain of broken friendships that happen among pastors and parishioners due to the threat of change. The hard truth from this scenario is, even when a pastor or leader communicates (again, both explaining and listening), not everyone will listen. Some will question the motives of leader, and will possibly leave the church. MacDonald notes the sadness and betrayal that a pastor often feels during these episodes. 

I was incredulous. John had been a part of this church for more than twenty-five years. He had led several building-renovation projects. He was signed up every time the men took an outdoors trip. John would have been included on any list of people who made up the core of this church. And now with almost no warning he told us he was probably going to leave the church. How can a man do that (156)?

Most if not all pastors sympathize! These actions not only dishearten pastors but also congregations (157). MacDonald brought out the reality and the warning of this possibility.

Who Stole My Church? outlines the challenges of bringing change to the 21st century church. Granted, many of these lessons are only learned by experience, but this book prepares and warns young pastors for the issues that will likely transpire and will also help experienced pastors recognize ways to tweak their approach by reminding them to know and communicate with their people. Pastors of all ages and experience will benefit from the lessons in this book. 


[1]“Legacy church planting revitalizes dying churches,” by Margaret Colson. cdli:wiki, http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc15/newsroom/printfriendly.asp?ID=61.

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